Born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas on July 19, 1834, in Paris, France. A member of an upper-class family (his father was a banker), Degas was originally intended to practice law, which he studied for a time after finishing secondary school. In 1855, however, he enrolled at the famous Ecole des Beaux-Arts, or School of Fine Arts, in Paris, where he studied under Louis Lamothe, a pupil of the classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
In order to supplement his art studies, Degas traveled extensively, including trips to Naples, Florence, and Rome (where he lived for three years), in order to observe and copy the works of such Renaissance masters as Sandro Botticelli, Andrea Mantegna, and Nicolas Poussin. From his early classical education, Degas learned a good deal about drawing figures, a skill he used to complete some impressive family portraits before 1860, notably The Belleli Family (1859).
In 1861, Degas returned to Paris, where he executed several "history paintings," or works with historical or Biblical themes, which were then the most sought-after paintings by serious art patrons and particularly the prestigious state-run art show, the Salon, held each year in Paris. He also began copying works by the Old Masters from the Louvre, which he would continue doing for many years. With his historical paintings (including 1861's Daughter of Jephthah, based on an incident from the Old Testament) and his finely-wrought portraits of friends, family members, and clients, the young Degas quickly established a reputation among French art circles and never suffered from the financial problems that plagued many of his contemporaries.
Soon, Degas began to shift his focus from historical painting to depictions of life in contemporary Paris. By 1862, he had begun painting various scenes from the racecourse, including studies of the horses, their mounts, and the fashionable spectators. Degas' style after the early 1860s was influenced by the budding Impressionist movement, including his friendship with Edouard Manet, as well as his introduction to Japanese graphic art, with its striking representation of figures. Along with his work painting scenes from the racetrack, Degas began concentrating on portraits of groups, most notably of female ballet dancers, who became Degas' most famous subjects.
In October 1872, Degas visited the United States for five months, spending time in New Orleans, Louisiana, where some members of his family were in the cotton business. From this experience came his famous painting New Orleans Cotton Office (1873).
Many of Degas' paintings featured the artist's experiments with unorthodox visual angles and asymmetrical perspectives, somewhat like a photographer's treatment of a subject. Examples of this style are A Carriage at the Races (1872), which features a human figure who is almost cut in half by the edge of the canvas, and Ballet Rehearsal (1876), a group portrait of ballerinas that appears almost cropped at the edges. From 1873 to 1883, Degas produced many of his most famous works, both paintings and pastels, of his favorite subjects, including the ballet, the racecourse, the music hall, and cafÃ© society.
Though he never suffered from lack of money or interest in his work, Degas stopped exhibiting at the Salon in 1874, and thereafter displayed most of his works alongside those of the other Impressionists, including Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro. His strong focus on draftsmanship, portraiture, and composition distanced him from the rest of the artists identified as Impressionists.
Degas used a wide variety of mediums and techniques. When he grew older, he turned to sculptoring, pastels and printmaking.
In his thrive for perfection, he repeated the same subjects again and again. When he concentrated on printmaking in the nineties, his preferred subjects were female nudes, either nude women at their toilette or nude dancers. Edgar Degas had a collection of decorative utensils like a bathtub, a sofa and a curtained bed in a corner of his studio.
During the war with Germany in 1870-1871 Degas served in the French army. The medical cause is not known, but since his time in the military service, he had problems with his eyes. In his late years the artist's eyesight deteriorated more and more. He was unable to create oil paintings and focused his artistic creativity on sculptures. Degas formed his sculptures using wax or clay. Favorite subjects were ballerinas or race horses.
When Degas had passed away, he left more than 2000 oil paintings and pastels and 150 sculptures. The sculpture models were all cast after his death.